I am regularly contacted by parents for advice about software they can install on the devices their children use at home that will enable them to filter out or block inappropriate content, usually based on the assumption that we must use some sort of monitoring software on campus. Often these parents are surprised to discover that while we do have filters to block the most egregious of content, it is fair to say that our college filters are not as strict as many might expect. We do use a commercial filter on our internet traffic to block inappropriate sites, however, such filters work on the basis of keywords and blacklists and neither of these methods are foolproof. So why do we take the risk?
Our college policy regarding parental controls goes a long way to explaining this:
"In general the College has an ethos of developing personal responsibility in students and ultimately we believe that it is essential for students to develop the skills and attitudes necessary to survive and then thrive in a digitally connected world."When we teach our kids how to use the internet, we do so from a position of preparing them for the 'real world' of internet access that most will encounter at home. While there are a minority of families who use some form of filtering software, the reality is that few families have internet filters of any kind on their home connections. This is not a criticism, I have not installed any filtering software at home either. This situation reflects the norm in my experience, a norm that we need to be teaching our students to operate effectively and responsibly within. For example, you cannot guarantee that even walking down Orchard Road you are not going to see images or overhear a conversation that you feel is inappropriate for your children. So in addition to the filters, arguably, more important than filters is the need to teach our children the skills they need to navigate the internet safely, and how to react appropriately if, or should I say, when something occurs.
This policy very much underpins our approach and throughout the Primary School, where, even from K2 (in K1 teachers use Guided Access), all students are effectively 'administrators' of their devices, this applies all the way through the iPad grades, and then on through from Grade 3-5, all students recieve their own laptop in G6, which they are administrators of—all the way through to grade 12. This means that our students are already accustomed to using and managing their laptops as an 'administrator' although they may not even be aware of this, as we treat this as the 'normal' operating state. This is an arrangement we encourage all parents to maintain, unless of course a situation arises where you feel that you need to withdraw the privilege of an admin account, in this (hopefully rare) situation, we encourage parents to ensure that this is a temporary arrangement. We also employ this as a sanction in the primary school, if a student is unable to demonstrate the level of responsibility we expect, we remove administrator access. To my knowledge this remains a threat we have not needed to follow through on... yet.
"Nearly half of 10 year olds say they have the skills to hide what they're doing online from their parents."
Sky News, Swipe
It's worth noting as a practical point, that the process of imposing parental controls is not a simple one, this is mainly because the process of setting the 'tightness' and 'looseness' of controls is a tricky balance to find. If your main concern is distraction rather than access to inappropriate content, there are a range of strategies we encourage at school that you can also model at home, and encourage your children to practise as well. The other critical consideration is that if you are not very careful, you could end up effectively creating an unhelpful dynamic where you effectively teach your child that they are not trusted, at which point you may well be encouraging them to find ways to subvert your attempts at policing their online activity, then when they do encounter problems they are unlikely to come to you for help as they will have to confess their nefarious scheme... For more see this short video on the 'the secret cyber life of young people'...
Road Safe, Web SafeThis is where the analogy of road safety that we use with students comes in. Roads in every country are commonplace, and at some point everyone of our children will need to learn how to navigate them safely and independently. The same can be said of the 'wild wild web'; like roads they are a modern and essential reality, and while they can be dangerous, they shouldn't be treated is if they are inherently dangerous places—although they can be very dangerous places. The solution to both is very similar: education and supervision. Like roads, we expect kids to be able to navigate the web from an early age, but never alone; although any wise parent should be modelling for their kids how they navigate the web, when they are using it together. Just like road safety, there are some basic rules we expect all young children to follow, to make these effective we've kept them simple:
- Only search the internet with a responsible adult present.
- If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, show the responsible adult.
- If you need to search online unsupervised, use a search engine designed for kids like Kiddle or Kidrex.
About point 3, we liken these 'child safe' search engines to playgrounds, spaces that are designed especially for children, this doesn't make them harmless, after all, kids in playgrounds can still get hurt, but it does make the likelihood of this less likely. In the same way we liken searching using Google as tantamount to walking down Orchard Road, not an inherently dangerous space per se, especially in Singapore; but clearly the possibility of encountering something or someone inappropriate is more likely. As children we did not grow up with the dangers of the internet, but we did grow up with dangers, and our parents, in my experience were quite comfortable with allowing us some controlled exposure to risk situations, precisely so we could learn from them. I fell out of several trees, and off several bicycles during my childhood, not to mention the stairs I fell down. Stairs, now those are really dangerous, but I doubt anyone is seriously considering preventing children from using those... So we're not looking to create a zero risk environment for our students, but a managed risk environment, this distinction is essential. This last point is one I've written about before, but a recent article from the Washington Post, entitled, 'Why I don't monitor my kids' texts anymore' does an excellent job of articulating this tension, along with some practical parenting advice.
"As a young and socially inexperienced person, I was sometimes mean, sometimes gross, and sometimes way out of line. Every kid tests his or her own boundaries. That’s how they start to grow up. The queasiness in my stomach or the ache in my heart when I crossed that line is what helped me learn from those mistakes.
When we hover over our kids’ social interactions, on high alert to catch each mistake and steer them back on course, we squelch their internal barometer for embarrassment and guilt. Had my mom listened to all my conversations and called my behavior out into the light, I might not have learned to read my moral compass."
This does beg the question, "at whatage is it okay for my child to browse the internet unsupervised?', and the answer is very similar to "at what age is it okay for my child to cross the road unsupervised?", which is, when you have taught them how to navigate it safely, and what to do if things go wrong. In my experience this is unlikely to be until grade 4 or 5, which is, incidentally, when students are allowed to make their own way home (with parental permission, of course).
Not all families or children are the same, and the home environment is not one that is necessarily conducive to ensuring that young children are never able to go online unsupervised. Given that our policy is to teach responsibility, we'd like to think that even if unsupervised, our students would still make the 'right choice' and either stay offline (working within an app for example) or use one of the child safe search engines that they are encouraged to use in school. However there are clearly scenarios where this is not a realistic option, in which case you may want to consider some digital tools that can assist with this, but bear in mind these are unlikely to be free if they're any good, for example a one year family subscription to Azoomee costs £40, " No ads, no in-app purchases. And a PIN lock to keep kids inside the app and take away the worries."
This article contains some very practical advice, over and above the 'unplug the router' (one I have to say I like, simple but effective!) strategy, along with some wise caveats,
"While we can certainly recommend a bunch of apps and devices for you, this is more about your approach than the tools you’re going to use. Kids generally don’t like being spied on and dislike being spied on without their knowledge even more. While a number of monitoring tools can run without children knowing about them, we strongly recommend being transparent with your kids about when and how you’re tracking them.
You know your kids better than we do, and we can’t prescribe the right approach for every type of child, but whatever your situation it pays to be open and honest about the dangers out there on the web and in the real world." David Nield